Warner Bros. // 1998 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // September 7th, 2010
Get Ready. Get Set. Get Lost!
The 1998 sci-fi film Lost in Space will probably best be remembered as the movie that finally ended the reign of James Cameron's Titanic as number one at the box office.
That may be the only thing it's remembered for.
Meet Space Family Robinson, a brood of scientists tasked with traveling to the planet Alpha Prime to prepare it for colonization; now that Earth's pollution problem is about to render it inhabitable. There's Professor John Robinson (William Hurt, A History of Violence), the cold, cerebral patriarch of the family and lead scientist of the Jupiter Mission; Dr. Maureen Robinson (Mimi Rogers, Ginger Snaps), John's wife and mother to the three Robinson kids; Judy (Heather Graham, The Hangover), the oldest daughter and a driven scientist like her father; angst-ridden daughter Penny (Lacey Chabert, Mean Girls) and precocious Will Robinson (Jack Johnson, Love Affair), the boy genius whose best friend is a robot. Also aboard the ship headed for Alpha Prime is Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc, Friends), an arrogant and gifted pilot and Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman, True Romance), a stowaway hired by terrorists to sabotage the Jupiter Mission. Smith's efforts are successful, sending the mission off course and leaving them -- that's right -- lost in space, where they encounter time travel bubbles, spider creatures and an annoying cartoon monkey named Blarp.
Stephen Hopkins' 1998 film Lost in Space, based on the cult favorite 1960s TV series of the same name, isn't exactly a bad movie, but it's not a very good one, either. It has a few good ideas and neat set pieces that don't add up to anything special. It has cool production design that's undercut by shoddy special effects, and a creative and talented cast that's squandered with roles that are either inconsistent or altogether underwritten. There's roughly half of a good movie somewhere in there. Unfortunately, it's butting up against a half movie that's kind of awful.
It didn't have to be this way. Lost in Space is one of the few instances where upon seeing the trailer, I can remember thinking to myself "I can see that being made into a movie." The TV show, beloved by many, is very much a product of its time: colorful, silly and more than a little campy, thanks in large part to the now-iconic performance of the late Jonathan Harris as Dr. Smith. Recontextualizing the series for contemporary audiences seemed to make sense, and the trailer promised some inspired casting (the idea of Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith alone makes it worth seeing) and a cool, more sophisticated futuristic aesthetic. There existed the possibility that this would be the rare TV adaptation that would be, dare I say, an improvement over the source material.
Upon seeing the film, of course, all of those hopes were dashed. Lost in Space is a confused mess that's disjointed from start to finish. With an interesting and (mostly) talented cast and workmanlike direction from Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2), the major problem with Lost in Space is its screenplay. The script is credited to Akiva Goldsman, who never met a screenplay he couldn't make mediocre (yes, that includes the script for which he won the Oscar), and smacks of having gone through a number of drafts; the finished script feels like a compilation of ideas from a number of previous iterations and not a coherent whole. There's no real story to Lost in Space; just a bunch of episodic set pieces strung together that barely relate. Consider the space battle that opens the film: yes, it demonstrates that Matt LeBlanc's Major Don West is a good pilot and a hero, but has nothing to do with the events of the film. It's not even LeBlanc's movie, really, so opening with him at the center rings false (LeBlanc, incidentally, is pretty good in the movie; his role is the textbook Han Solo rip-off, but the former Friends star sells it in what is probably his best and most significant film role to date). The same could be said of Gary Oldman's Dr. Smith, whom the film never really figures out what to do with. Is he just the thorn in the side of the Robinson family? Troublesome stowaway? Or straight up villain? It's telling that the movie has to create alternate versions of Smith to come up with its only real villain, and even that doesn't take place until the last half hour.
The CG special effects, which looked dated even when the film was originally released in 1998, range from "just ok" to downright horrible. Bad as they are, though, there will always be a special place in Movie Hell for Lost in Space thanks to one effect: the CG-creation known as "Blarp," a cuddly little cartoon monkey thing that the kids befriend. Anyone looking to make fun of Jar Jar Binks has no idea just how good they have it (you can't even use the defense that Jar Jar screwed up a Star Wars movie while Blarp just screwed up Lost in Space, but we're talking about The Phantom Menace). Blarp is one of the worst-conceived and executed characters -- CG or otherwise -- of any movie in the last two decades. Even the name is horrible, and further evidence of just how patchwork the movie is: the stupid cartoon monkey is clearly designed to appeal to kids, but nothing else is in Lost in Space does. It's too dark and drab and, yes, at times even scary -- particularly a strange spider-like monster that appears late in the film, which would almost work if it was part of a sequence that made any sense. Like everything else in the movie, it feels like something left over from an early brainstorming session that wound up incorporated into the final film. Goldsman didn't so much write a coherent screenplay as he did just stack a bunch of notecards.
New Line's Blu-ray of Lost in Space looks at sound decent at best. The full 1080p HD transfer looks good for the most part, but demonstrates a few minor problems. Though detail is mostly good, there is an unevenness to the transfer that makes certain shots look a little soft and others a bit too hot. Color reproduction is good, but this is mostly bland movie -- it's all metallic silvers and drab earth tones. It's also a dark movie, and, at times, black levels overpower the image somewhat. Still, there's a fine layer of grain throughout the presentation that gives it a film-like quality; it's not a perfect transfer, but it's good enough to keep fans happy. The same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD audio track: for a film that ought to have a lively, often explosive audio track, it's pretty subdued. The center channel gets the most attention and the dialogue is clear, but even the action sequences don't get their full due. A really strong audio presentation would have made the film seem a lot better (or, at least, more worth your time and money) than it is, so it's a missed opportunity from New Line.
All of the extras have simply been ported over from New Line's original Platinum Series DVD release. While that was a pretty good DVD with a strong crop of extras, it's not quite enough to justify an HD double dip. You've got to offer something new. What's here are two commentary tracks: the first from director Hopkins and writer Goldsman (recorded separately), who give a fairly dry play-by-play of what's happening on screen and some production background. The second track consists of the special effects team, and that talk is a lot more technical in nature and probably a lot more informative, if you're into that kind of thing. The problem is that there's not a lot of recognition of just how bad the effects in the finished film are. There are a handful of deleted and alternate scenes, mostly minor changes to stuff that's in the film (despite the use of the phrase "Director's Cut" in the text and several references to Hopkins' "original cut") and one longer subplot -- the only practical creature effect in the film -- that was dropped altogether. The deleted material is present non-anamorphic from a fuzzy digital source and feature unfinished special effects, so you've got to really want to see it in order to make it through.
There are three featurettes included. The first, "Building the Special Effects," is exactly what it sounds like; the casual fan would do better to watch this 15-minute piece and skip the VFX commentary. The second, "The Future of Space Travel," is only tangentially related to the movie and tries to predict how long before there are civilian tours of space (apparently, it's 10 years, so we should have been up there by 2008). The final featurette is a collection of interviews with the cast of the original Lost in Space TV show, all of whom have cameos in the movie. Rounding out the special features are a music video for the theme song by a band called Apollo Four Forty and the movie's original -- and quite promising -- theatrical trailer.
Lost in Space is a mess of a movie -- a missed opportunity that's only good enough to be a passable Saturday afternoon time waster for sci-fi devotees. There's some decent stuff in there, but there's also patchy storytelling, mawkish sentimentality, a ridiculous time travel subplot and, of course, f'ing Blarp. With passable technical specs and no new special features, an HD upgrade for Lost in Space is almost a lateral move even for the film's biggest fans. Consider hanging on to your Platinum Series DVD and putting that money towards the Blu-ray of J.J. Abrams Star Trek. Now there's a 1960s sci-fi TV-show-turned-movie that works.
Danger, Will Robinson.
Review content copyright © 2010 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video